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Ex-Klansman Links Klan To Murder

August 20, 1998

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) _ Former Ku Klux Klan leader Sam Bowers presided over meetings to plan the 1966 murder of a civil rights activist, with participants using a special secret code to describe the crime, a former Klan member testified.

Taking the witness stand Wednesday in a trial of the murder of Vernon Dahmer, Billy Roy Pitts told jurors of secret code used to describe degrees of punishment.

``No. 1″ was a cross burning; ``No. 2,″ a whipping, ``No. 3,″ a firebombing; and ``No. 4,″ a killing, Pitts said.

``Sam Bowers was the only man who could order a No. 3 and No. 4 in the White Knights of the state of Mississippi,″ Pitts testified.

Bowers, an Imperial Wizard who led the Mississippi White Knights, ordered Dahmer’s murder during a special 1965 meeting at a Mississippi farmhouse, Pitts said. Several other meetings were held to discuss the firebombing of Dahmer’s store, he testified.

Pitts, 54, who has admitted a role in the crime, was expected to take the stand again today in the trial.

It marks the fifth time Bowers, 73, has faced the charges of masterminding the killing. The other trials in the late 1960s all ended in deadlocked juries.

Pitts told jurors that he was threatened with death following his testimony against Bowers in a 1968 trial.

``Sam Bowers is very powerful man,″ Pitts said. ``I didn’t wait around to see what he was going to do. I left.″

The attack took place early on the morning of Jan. 10, 1966, at the family’s home and store in Hattiesburg. As flames engulfed the home, Dahmer held Klansmen at bay while his family fled through a back window. He died in his wife’s arms 12 hours later, his lungs seared by the flames and heat.

The black store owner was allegedly targeted by Bowers to silence his efforts to register blacks to vote.

Pitts said he stood in the front yard of Dahmer’s home the night of the fire but did nothing else.

As in the earlier trials, Pitts testified that while Bowers ordered the murder, he was not present during its execution.

In addition to implicating Bowers, Pitts spoke about other Klan rituals.

``It is a totally secretive organization,″ Pitts said. ``They have a table set up in the woods ... there is a pistol and bayonet laying across a Bible. We took an oath to obey the spirit of the Ku Klux Klan.″

Pitts pleaded guilty to first-degree arson for his role in the Dahmer attack and was sentenced to life, plus 10 years. Until this year, however, he had served only a four-year federal sentence for conspiracy in the same case.

In January, The Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson reported Pitts had never served his life sentence for Dahmer’s murder after he finished the federal sentence. Three weeks later, Pitts surrendered and began serving the sentence.

Jim Ingram, a state official who was an FBI agent in Mississippi at the time of the murder, said Tuesday that Pitts didn’t serve time on the murder charge and was given money to relocate his family after his testimony against Bowers.

Vernon Dahmer Jr., Dahmer’s son, said outside the Forrest County Courthouse on Wednesday that Pitts had played a major role in the earlier trials and ``he’s pivotal to our case.″

Defense lawyers called for a mistrial Wednesday when Pitts testified that Bowers’ attorney, Travis Buckley, attended a Klan planning session when the raid against Dahmer was discussed. Judge Richard McKenzie denied the motion.

Buckley was arrested in 1966 on an arson charge in the case, but was not convicted.

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